Monday, January 25, 2021

One-handed Typing

I have been a bit delinquent at blogging. I recently had shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff tendon. I was on a hike last year where we had to hold on to ropes for safety while descending some steep hillsides. I slipped and the rope saved me. But with the added weight of the pack the stress on my arm tore the tendon. As a result I am limited to typing with one hand, which is a slow process. I hope to be in shape to hike again in a few months, and to once again raise a toast to the Western Isles in the Western Isles.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Cumbrae Castle

I have only been to Little Cumbrae once, and that was way back in 2008. One highlight, among many, was climbing to the top of Little Cumbrae Castle. The castle is not actually on Little Cumbrae itself, but an adjacent tidal islet marked on the map as Castle Island. Next to this island the map shows a reef named Trail Island, an odd name for a small island with no trails. A bit of research showed the name to be a corruption of Eilean Turrail, a shortening of Eilean Tur-uasail, the island of the nobleman's tower. So the perhaps with a lower sea-level centuries ago the reef was once part of Castle Island.

The castle is a square keep that dates to the fifteenth century. Crowned by a parapet, it stands three storeys tall. Cut into the walls are several arrow slits, and splayed gun loops in the basement walls allowed canon fire to be directed towards the sea. A modern wooden stairway gave access to the first floor, where I found the hall and kitchen, each with its own fireplace. From there a restored circular stairway led to the second floor, which had two rooms, each with fireplace and garderobe. I followed the stairway up to the top, and emerged from the caphouse to stand atop the open roof.

The view was expansive. A kingly view in fact, for in 1375 Robert II dwelt for a time in an earlier fortification that stood here. The Earl of Eglinton had this castle built a hundred years later, and in the seventeenth century it was in the hands of the sixth Earl. He did not get along with Cromwell, and in 1653 Cromwell’s troops came a-calling, leaving the castle in ruins. 

Returning to Little Cumbrae is high on my list of must-dos. During the visit in 2008 I was unable to find the chapel of St Bey, which had been the main reason I'd gone to the island. In the years since I've learned the exact location of the chapel, and made plans to return in 2020. But Covid raised its ugly head and those plans are on hold.

What follows are a few photos from a visit to Little Cumbrae Castle in 2008. Note that in the first photo of the castle tower you can also see the massive Hunterston nuclear power plant a mile away on the mainland; two towers of power separated by 500 years of history. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Please, Sir, Can I have some more?

More breakfast fun in Scotland . . . 

On our first visit to Scotland my wife and I took my parents with us. It was 1989, and after exploring the Loch Lomond area we drove north to Fort Willian. As we approached the town we saw a vacancy sign at the Innseagan Hotel, and decided to spend the night there. We enjoyed a quiet evening, and in the morning the four of us went down for breakfast. As usual, there was a table filled with an assortment of cereals, and another table with a tray of tiny glasses set next to pitchers of apple and orange juice.

I proceeded to scoop some corn flakes into a bowl, and to fill one of those tiny glasses with orange juice. As I made my way to a table I heard a shout.

"Sir . . . Sir . . ."

"Yes", I replied.

"Please, Sir. You can have cereal, or juice, but not both." I had to return the juice. That was my introduction, and a still lingering memory, of Fort William. Good times.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

A Breakfast Request

A Scalpay week. Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it. A week in a Gaelic speaking B&B sounded even more fascinating. A chance to practice a language I’d been studying for a few years. I also had some unfinished business on Harris: a minor island easily reached from Scalpay by a bridge. And so I booked a week-long stay on Scalpay in the best time of year to do that, late spring. 

On the first day I made the circular walk to the Scalpay lighthouse, and was late getting back to the B&B. I was the only one staying there, and as I climbed the stairs to the room my host Annabel asked what I’d like for breakfast. I tried to say what I wanted in Gaelic, and as I did she nearly gasped, a look of puzzlement on her face; it was as if I’d asked for fried cow-pooh and boiled bull testicles (maybe I did.) 

I repeated my request in English: I'd like a bowl of corn flakes, two fried eggs, toast and coffee. She was still puzzled, a puzzlement that puzzled me for a few puzzling seconds. Then I realized most Americans want the full Scottish breakfast: porridge, eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, potato scones, tomato, mushrooms, kippers, and black pudding (I felt my arteries harden as I wrote that). Such a breakfast would leave me incapable of doing anything but having a heart attack, and then resting in peace, forever. She was very happy with my selection. It meant she did not have to get up at 4am to start cooking.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Tobar Odhran and an Image of Sloth

Over a year has passed since my last visit to the Hebrides, and another may pass before I return. I have spent some of the year writing, but most of it relaxing on my recliner. And as I do so I am the perfect image of sloth. 

Would an image of sloth be worthy of a statue? I hope so. I can see myself being immortalized in stone; resting comfortably in front of the TV, a beer in one hand, a remote in the other. I wonder if I can find an artesian with the skill of Michelangelo to chisel my lazy image in stone. Probably not. But someone centuries ago did immortalize two images of sloth in the Hebrides. They are known as Dealbh na Leisg, which can translate as either the image of laziness, or the image of sloth. Sloth, laziness, either would be appropriate for how I’ve spent much of 2020.

But I have to say my form of laziness is not quite like that depicted on these stones (not for many years, anyway). One of them is mounted high on the tower of Rodel Church on Harris. It shows a man laying on his back, passing the time, not with a beer in hand, but grasping his manhood. In the nineteenth century the Countess of Dunmore, not caring for the explicit nature of the stone, had it used for target practice. As a result the three-dimensional aspect of the stone has been, shall we say, circumcised. The stone is an odd thing to find on a church, but not this church. Just around the corner is the carving of a naked woman.

The second carving of sloth is on the island of Colonsay. It is a stone pillar that dates to the 8th century. Originally placed next to the chapel of Riasg Buidhe, a village abandoned after WWI, it was moved to Colonsay House garden in the 1890s.  The carving on the front of the stone is exquisite: at the top is the face of a monk, whose body is created by whirling designs similar to the rock art of Dalraida, terminating in what looks like a fish tail. The end result is an enigmatic fish-cross crowned by the head of a bearded monk.

The front of the stone is shown in countless books on the sculpture of the Hebrides. What’s never shown is the back side. That’s not just because of the subject, but also because the image is so worn it does not show up well in photography.

At first glance, aside from a lozenge shaped object near its rounded tip, the back of the cross appears undecorated. But there is a faded image, perhaps purposely worn off; one hinted at by its name, Dealbh na Leisg, the image of sloth. The subject of the decoration is further hinted at in this excerpt from Kevin Byrne’s book Lonely Colonsay; Isle at the Edge: “The reverse seems to be associated with a more virile tradition, possibly a symbol of fertility or potency.” Byrne goes on to quote a writer from the 1880s, who slyly remarked that “the stone is dressed only in front, undressed on the back.” This bit of undressed stone is a phallic symbol. A mixture of Christian on one side, pagan on the other. You can see a line drawing of the stone at this CANMORE link.

I wanted to see this unusual stone up close. So on a visit to Colonsay long ago I made my way to the garden. Looking over the garden wall I could see the stone, twenty feet away, standing watch over Tobar Odhran, St Oran’s Well. The holy well is covered by an old millstone, and if you lift it (which I did not do) you will discover the well is constructed of coursed and mortared rubble masonry, with steps leading three-feet down to the water. Set in the eye of the millstone cover is something odd. It may have been part of the axle for the millstone, but to me it looked like one of the pre-Christian water-worn bodach and cailleach stones, such as those found on Gigha and in Glen Lyon.

St Oran’s Well, in its garden setting under the watchful eye of the monk-stone, is one of the sacred sites of the Hebrides. I am no expert in what defines a thin place, where the border between this life and the next mingle; but whoever placed the stone here created a divine space: the cross with the face of a monk watching over the well, while the powerful image of Dealbh na Leisg wards off those who might not be intimidated by a cross; an example of a merged Christian and pagan talisman, all the protective bases covered in case one fails the test.  Maybe. Perhaps. Read into it what you will. 

Even though thirty years have passed, the fragrances of the Colonsay gardens pop into my head whenever I think back to the day I hopped over the garden wall (shame on me) to see Dealbh na Leisg. I will surely return to the isles of the west, but right now I’m going to recline in my chair, grasp something with one hand, a beer, and with a remote in the other see what’s on.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Crògary Mòr and the Cave of Gold - North Uist

The old peat track up Bealach Maari looked inviting. As I strolled up the track the sun blazed intensely down, and so I stopped to take my shirt off. After a minute of savouring the cooling air the midges found me. I put the shirt back on. My destination was the summit of Crògary Mòr, five miles east of Vallay Island. I had wanted to walk over to Vallay, but the tides were not right for a daytime return, so I decided to get a view of the island from the summit of Crògary Mòr; at 590 feet one of the highest hills in the area. I was also doing something I love to do on a walk, following in the footsteps of an author. Alasdair Alpin Macgregor climbed Crògary Mòr in the 1920s, and wrote the following:

Not a halt do I allow myself until my brogues are feeling the rocky summit of Crogary Mòr, and the eyes of me searching for the cave of gold reputed by the isles-folk to contain of precious metal the fill of seven cow’s hides . . . And I see, too, where the moors of Eaval appear to slip over the horizon into the great North Ford. And the Isle of Benbecula lies beyond, like a ruby set in a sea of glittering sapphire. 

Erskine Beveridge also wrote about the treasure of Crògary Mòr:

A tradition is locally current to the effect that one of the MacQueens of Oronsay buried a golden treasure in a foal’s skin near the summit of Crogary More at a spot from whence the sun can be seen shining upon three forts at the same time. These conditions infer a hiding-place on the north face of the hill, within view presumably of Dun na Mairbhe, Dun Aonghuis, and Dun Rosail.

Hmmm . . . A secret location where the sun can be seen simultaneously shining on three prehistoric forts. Exciting stuff. Like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Hopefully there would not be any deadly booby-traps waiting to spring on someone unworthy of the treasure (like me). And as for that treasure, there is a bit of a discrepancy in the descriptions. Would the amount of gold fill the hide of one foal, or seven cows?  And what exactly is a ‘hide-full’ in the metric system?

Crogary Mor seen from Loch Aonghais

The top of the hill was a steep, bald hump of bedrock. As I climbed to the summit I kept an eye out for the cave of gold, but saw nothing. On reaching the top I took out a map to pinpoint exactly where the three forts were that Beveridge mentioned. The one known as Dun na Mairbhe, dun of the dead—a good name for a zombie movie—could be seen a mile to the north on an island in Vallaquie Strand. Also visible was Dun Aonghuis a mile to the northwest, and Dun Rosail, two miles to the northeast.

But no matter where I stood on the hill the sun was shining on all three forts. Perhaps Beveridge was thinking of the wrong three. The bottom line was that I had to give up my hunt for gold. So for all you treasure seekers there, start plotting the locations of the duns of North Uist, all five-hundred. Then see if you can figure out another three that are visible from one spot on Crògary Mòr.

What I could see from the summit was the isle-studded sea; Vallay, Oronsay, and myriad islands beyond, including St Kilda on the far horizon. 

Looking northwest from Crogary Mor

The hill known as Maari, nearly as high as Crògary Mòr, lay a half-mile to the west. The pass between the two hills is called Bealach Maari, and at its southern end is a seven-foot standing stone. The stone may be a boundary- or way-marker, but it could have other roots. I say that because on the western slopes of Blathaisbhal, two miles to the southeast, there are three other standing stones. This trio is set in a linear alignment that points directly to the stone in Bealach Maari. Perhaps all of them are markers left to guide someone who knows the secret to the cave of gold. 

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to search for the hidden gold of Crògary Mòr. If you find it, kindly forward me one cow’s hide worth as a commission for the idea.

Stone alignment at Blathaisbhal - the hills Maari and Crogary Mor in the distance

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Glen Rosa Circuit - Arran

The path into the hills started at the Glenrosa Campsite. It was an easy start, the boot-beaten path gradually ascending next to the winding Glenrosa Water. I’d visited Holy Island the day before (see chapter 1 of Firth of Clyde to the Small Isles), and was setting out to hike some of the Glen Rosa circuit on Arran. Even though it was an overcast day, I was hoping to find a view of Holy Island from the 2000-foot knife ridge between the hills of Goatfell and A’ Chir.

After three miles I came to a fork in the path. A right turn led up to The Saddle, the way to climb Goatfell, or carry on through to Glen Sannox. The 2,866 foot summit of Goatfell was hidden in clouds, so I took the left fork. It made a steady climb, rising 1400 feet over one mile. That led through the heart of Fionn Coire to the high ridge between the peaks of Cir Mhòr and A’ Chir.

There I was faced with a difficult choice. A right turn led to Cir Mhòr (2600 ft), via the Rosa Pinnacle, and then on to Caisteal Abhail and Ceum na Caillich, also known as The Witch’s Step. Many place names on Arran are guaranteed to make hill climbers drool; there’s the Rosetta Stone, Pagoda Ridge, Portcullis Buttress, Rosa Slabs, The Bastion, Devil’s Punchbowl, and Flat Iron Tower. If you fail to climb any of those you can always settle for Consolation Tor. But I needed to be back down at the road in three hours to meet my wife, so I turned left.

It was an exhilaratingly airy, narrow ridge-top path. Five minutes later, at an elevation of 2000 feet, the path split, and another decision had to be made. The left fork made a challenging 300-foot knife-edge climb to the summit of A’ Chir. I was beat in the heat—it was a sweltering 25 degrees—and I’d already climbed 1800 feet over six miles. It was an easy decision for someone hiking on their own. I took the right fork.

That route led around the west shoulder of A’ Chir. In a matter of minutes I lost 300 feet of hard-earned altitude as the trail dropped down dusty, sun-baked slabs of granite before climbing steeply back to Bealach an Fhir-bhogha, Bowman’s Pass. In times past deer were driven up through this narrow pass. Archers, lying in wait, picked them off one by one as they charged past. Damn unsportsmanlike, if you ask me.

The view was spectacular; the massive bowl of Coire Daingean lay at my feet, dropping 1600 feet to the headwaters of Glenrosa Water. The clouds had thinned over the past hour, and the summit of Goatfell looked clear and inviting. I was beginning to regret my decision not to climb it when something else impressive caught my eye. It was the very thing I’d come here to see: Holy Island rising from the blue-green waters of the Firth.

According to the map there is a route from Bowman’s Pass down to Glen Rosa. But nary a path was to be seen, just dusty slopes too steep to safely descend. But 200 feet farther, just beyond the summit of the pass where archers once lay in wait, I came across a trail that dropped east to the summit of Beinn a’ Chliabhain, Creel Mountain (2140 ft).

I did not want to leave the airy heights, but the time had come to start down. The ridge path to Beinn a’ Chliabhain led to another high ridge above Coire a’ Bhradain, Salmon Corry. Five-hundred feet below, like veins leading to a heart, a half-dozen streams could be seen trickling down the corry, the headwaters of the often salmon-filled waters of Garbh Allt. 

It was a joy to be walking downhill (my favourite direction). And so, happy as a midge at a nude beach, I descended to Cnoc Breac, Trout Hill. There are certainly a lot of fishy names on Arran—I’m surprised there’s no Pike’s Peak. From there the terrain gradually transitioned from rock, to heather and grass. After descending another 700 feet I reached the cascading waters of Garbh Allt.

That walk down from Bowman’s Pass remains, to this day, the most amazing ridge descent I’ve ever made. The view across Glenrosa, and to far off Holy Island, made it hard to concentrate on my footing. The lower slopes are steep and soggy, and I slipped and fell twice when distracted by the stunning view.

At 6 pm the Glen Rosa campsite came into view, where my wife had dropped me six hours earlier. She wasn’t there. (Good help is hard to find.) But after walking down the road for fifteen minutes she showed up with a cold can of beer. (I take back the remark about good help.) The journal entry for that long day ends with: Made our way back to the hotel .  . . time to soak in the tub. It had been a fantastic walk. It was an even better soak.